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Planning Commissioners zero in on CodeNEXT mapping

Wednesday, April 25, 2018 by Jack Craver

CodeNEXT, the seemingly interminable process of rewriting the city’s land use regulations, has been guided by two distinct goals. The first is to provide a simpler code that is easier for the layperson to understand, including by introducing new language to describe zoning categories. The second goal is to use the new code to encourage different development patterns, such as increased residential density along the city’s major corridors.

The problem is that the changes to the language and zoning categories have made it hard for policymakers to figure out what, if anything, is actually changing in terms of the type of development that will be allowed, and where.

In February, when the third draft of CodeNEXT was released, members of the Planning Commission requested that city staff develop a “nearest-equivalency map” that would simply translate the city’s existing land use rules into the new language and zoning categories. The commission could then compare the nearest-equivalency map to the proposed CodeNEXT map to get a better sense of what substantive changes to land use were being proposed.

However, a recent briefing by staff on Draft 3 during a joint meeting last week of the Planning Commission and Zoning and Platting Commission led a number of commissioners to a surprising conclusion: The third draft is actually more equivalent to existing zoning than the equivalency map.

“Draft 3 is closer to what’s actually on the ground,” Planning Commissioner Trinity White told the Austin Monitor on Monday.

Why? Because the equivalency map only dealt with base zoning, while the most recent draft of CodeNEXT incorporated many of the other layers of land use restrictions that define development in Austin, such as conditional overlays.

The six members in the mapping working group of the commission voted unanimously last week to use Draft 3 as the baseline code to which they will explore making policy changes, rather than the equivalency map.

“The entire Planning Commission had thought that the Draft 3 map involved some fairly major policy choices,” explained Planning Commissioner Conor Kenny in an interview with the Monitor. “And what we discovered (last Wednesday) is that Draft 3 is very, very close to the sum total of adopted land use policies in Austin presently.”

Many of the examples of the new code that staff showed the commissions were based entirely on existing neighborhood plans.

For instance, Planning Commission Chair Stephen Oliver asked why one part of Oltorf Street, a high-traffic corridor that the city’s comprehensive plan, Imagine Austin, identifies as ideal for new density, was nevertheless still zoned for lower-density, single-family residences. Planning and Zoning Department Director Greg Guernsey explained that that was what the existing neighborhood plan called for.

There are a few other policy changes included. Draft 3 allows more properties to add accessory dwelling units (otherwise known as granny flats or garage apartments) by authorizing them on single-family lots within walking distance of streets identified in Imagine Austin as “activity corridors.” It also will allow certain properties that are currently zoned for commercial use along the corridors to include residential units if they have ground-floor retail and if they include income-restricted units.

Finally, the proposed code increases the allowable height for some buildings along the corridors. However, a number of commissioners suggested that many of the properties where the allowable height was increased would never in fact be home to taller buildings, simply because the setbacks are too close to the road for a tall building to be feasible.

Planning Commissioner Greg Anderson described the proposed draft as a complete surrender to “well-to-do folks that didn’t want any changes” to land use rules.

“The thing I’m happiest about is there’s not going to be another draft, so you won’t have another bite at the apple to water it down further,” he told city staff.

White disagrees that the changes included in the proposed code are minor. She said that allowing more commercial properties to include residential will dramatically boost residential capacity.

Even those who generally side with Anderson in supporting major reforms to the code may not necessarily see Draft 3 as a failure, but rather as a sign from city staff that it’s up to land use commissioners and City Council members to make bigger changes. On Tuesday, for instance, the affordable housing working group of the Planning Commission unveiled a proposed change aimed at significantly bolstering the amount of income-restricted housing on the corridors.

On at least one other front, however, Oliver was visibly frustrated with what he viewed as city staff dumping all of the work on the commission’s plate. The commission had asked repeatedly, he said, for a list of noncontroversial parts of the new code that the commission could easily approve before delving into the code policies that have generated more division.

Guernsey noted that staff had provided the commission with a spreadsheet of public comments that the city has received about a variety of code issues.

“We don’t have an easy way to give to you or to the public something saying ‘everybody is in agreement on this particular topic,’” he said.

Oliver emphasized that, as is the case at every commission meeting, the “consent list” isn’t off limits for debate, but rather a guess at items that would not generate significant debate.

“I’ll give it another shot and try to give you something,” said Guernsey. “But what I’m telling you is what you asked is an extremely difficult task, whether it’s you doing it or us doing it.”

Replied Oliver: “And I’m saying it’s too late.”

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